So where, in the eyes of the G20, is development really going?

November 26, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Jasmine Burnley is Global Economic Crisis Adviser for Oxfam and has taken up the baton for this post in Duncan’s absence…

Six short months ago, pundits didn’t hold out significant hope that the G20 would seriously tackle development. But the Korean government – hosts of the G20’s most recent bash in Seoul earlier this month – worked hard to push the issue high up the agenda.

Did it work? The verdict is mixed – though the undercurrents are fascinating.

Sino-US currency wars dominated the news. But in the background officials had been quietly spending time building up a Seoul Development Consensus. This deal was, the G20 said, a way to narrow the development gap and ensure a rose-tinted future of global growth.

The initiative was positive. The G20 has acknowledged that some of its members have existing development responsibilities and committed them to reaffirm their respective aid pledges.

The G20 also took a step away from the G8 by inviting two African countries to officially sit at their table in future. This alone falls a long way short of “fair representation” but it was another sign at least that the G20 knows it can’t replicate the G8’s ‘business as usual’ approach.

So what of this Seoul Development Consensus? There does seem to be some sting behind it. Leaders recognized that there was “no single formula for development success” and that others must respect that a sovereign country owned its own domestic policies.

This is a fairly significant formulation of words, a diplomatically-explicit acknowledgement that past policies have been flawed – by implication, the “one size fits all” Washington Consensus has not delivered on its promise, notably for several of the countries now around the G20 table.

The G20’s commitment to its new development deal will be tested by whether it genuinely recognises that successful countries have used a diverse range of economic policies to reduce inequality and promote growth. The G20 might yet be tempted to cherry-pick only the ones it now sees fit to promote.

The best way to ensure that the benefits of growth reach the poorest people are by countries investing in small-scale agriculture, land reform, education, healthcare and social protection. This is what many of the G20’s newly developed members did themselves after all.

The G20’s stated desire to focus on building skills to bolster employment in developing countries is welcome – fine words, not yet backed up by anything more substantial. The G20 hasn’t given enough recognition to the need to invest in universal primary and secondary education. Skilled workers also need to be educated and healthy in order for a country to attract much investment. Primary education investment can yield a 19 per cent rate of return – a number that would make any Wall St banker sit up and take notice.

And it’s similar for healthcare. Malaria costs Africa $12 billion each year in lost revenue yet the G20 demonstrated precious little understanding that better-resourced healthcare systems are important for long-term growth.

The G20 should openly acknowledge that sustainable growth-with-equity requires investment in these essential areas. This would send a signal for private investors as well as give some real meaning and status to this new development consensus.

France will be the next chair of both the G20 and G8 next year and it will want successful summits that reflect well on it. President Sarkozy’s intention to tackle international financial regulation should keep the new Seoul development consensus alive.

The French have some concrete ideas up their sleeves to keep the agenda from drifting, as some fear it could. A financial sector tax for instance was not on the official agenda at Seoul, but it remained on the table and featured in the communiqué as a note to finance ministers to look at the recommendations of the UN High Level Advisory panel on climate change financing. This panel has identified such a tax as a viable option for finding new funds.

Sarkozy has been demonstrably vocal about putting a financial sector tax in front of the French G20 next year (see Max Lawson’s blog earlier this week). Other issues such as food price volatility and domestic resource mobilisation are also likely to get good airtime next year.

So to the verdict: the Seoul Development Consensus is a start and significantly more tangible than many pundits expected. But the proof, as they say, will be in next year’s Gallic dessert.

For more on this see Oxfam’s paper The Making of a Seoul Development Consensus

November 26, 2010
Duncan Green